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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band keep the circle going

By Dan MacIntosh, October 2002

While it's an overstatement to suggest that The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band doesn't get any respect, it's still safe to say this pioneering country group hardly receives the props it so richly deserves.

Case in point: When the quintet (Jeff Hanna, Jim Ibbotson, Bob Carpenter, Jimmie Fadden and John McEuen) recently opened for Charlie Daniels at the Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts - a venue no more than a stone's throw from this band's Long Beach, Cal. origins - these veterans weren't even listed in the concert program. But such are the ups and downs of the road life, especially when you've been booked as a relatively last minute replacement for the ever-popular and sexy Dwight Yoakam. At least many fellow musicians still think the world of this group, which is why so many of them - including rocker Tom Petty and Taj Mahal - gladly joined in to record the just-released "Will The Circle Be Unbroken III."

Once again, now for the third time, The Nitty Gritty Dirt band has brought in comparatively young bucks like Petty and Yoakam to sing with the likes of old-timers Doc Watson and Johnny Cash. Inevitably, a few - who don't know any better - may assume that The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is merely capitalizing upon the success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with this collection.

But if you do your history homework, you'll find out that the first "Circle" album came out a full three decades before anybody even imagined "O Brother."

Nevertheless, the band is not the least bit bothered by being linked, if ever so loosely, with this surprisingly successful Coen Brothers movie soundtrack project.

"I'm happy to be associated with it," singer/songwriter/guitarist Jeff Hanna states. "Obviously, there's a link between 'O Brother' and the original 'Circle' record. It's all part of a wealth of this kind of music. It's great to see people exposed on a big level to the likes of The Nashville Bluegrass Band. It's that pure, simple music, that I think is really at the root of it." Clearly, this new third edition of the "Circle" series was a much less daunting task than was the prospect of undertaking the initial recording. Back in 1972, these long-haired and still quite young members of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band must have appeared like a scruffy gang of highly suspicious-looking musicians to the old guard Opry veterans they encountered for what went on to become a groundbreaking musical event. "Yeah, I think it was a lot more comfortable (now)," Hanna says. "We weren't making our first journey to Nashville (this time) as the sort of rebel teens from the West Coast. (Also) we already knew the vast majority of the people we recorded with on this album." Although it may have remained an unspoken debt of gratitude, the group believes these old time country artists also had something to gain from this first interaction and that they were glad this younger generation had reached out the hand of musical fellowship to them. "They were happy to have our market," recalls Jim Ibbotson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's other singer and guitarist. "We had something going that they didn't have at that time. We were on the radio with "Mr. Bojangles." We (also) had a record company behind us." But if icons like Roy Acuff, Merle Travis or Earl Scruggs were more than a little suspicious of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's true intentions, they never voiced such reservations to the group's faces.

"Behind our backs, how do you know what people say?" Ibbotson wonders aloud.

In the end, though, it was The Nitty Gritty Band's true-to-traditions music that won over these established musicians. As Ibbotson puts it, they told them that it was "because of the music that you've recorded on this 'Uncle Charlie & And His Dog Terry' record, that we made in 69/70" that ultimately did the ol' credibility trick. In addition to how this album represented a landmark career move for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it also became a stepping stone for the sons of Earl Scruggs, who also contributed to it.

"Randy, Gary and Stevie Scruggs got to go up to Earl and say, 'Daddy, we can play your music now,'" Ibbotson remembers with a smile. This enormous responsibility of helping to carry on the established traditions of country music has never been a responsibility The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has ever taken lightly. "On the first 'Circle,' we had Maybelle (Carter), and on the second one we had the sisters - June and Helen and Anita, and Johnny (Cash). And on the third one, we had all of those who are still alive," Ibbotson muses. "On this one, you hear Johnny's song, 'Tears In The Holston River,' about how he missed both Sara and Maybelle, to the point that he cried. For him to come in and want to continue to support The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's take on his mother-in-law's music and that legacy and to have June sitting there and telling stories about their sessions at Bristol and how we're welcome to come down there to the shrine, to sit on the porch and watch that part of the world go by, it's a major responsibility."

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